Wednesday, October 12, 2022

Layers of Time

When my mother was in her final years, I often traveled to spend time with her. She lived in Peoria, the town where I grew up, still in my childhood home. It was an eight-hour drive and a week-long visit.  I explored the city with her, rediscovering it myself as we visited museums and gardens. We shared special moments, but it was also challenging as her memory fled. I needed a periodic escape to be fully present for her and began reconnecting with old friends from college and post-college days. One evening at dinner, a friend noted that when my mother was gone, my visits would cease. Of course, he was right, but it had never occurred to me, acknowledging my mother’s future absence was not something I could easily conceive of – emotion clouding the logical inevitability.

His prediction came to pass in 2015 when my mother passed away.  I came down again in 2016 for the unveiling of her tombstone and the sale of my childhood home. After that, there was no reason to make that lengthy trek–– until I received the invite to my 50th high school reunion, one year delayed because of Covid. I had never gone to a high school reunion. High school was not my happy place, but rather something I needed to get through to get on with my life. I began to poll my friends on whether they had ever attended a reunion. There were two schools of thought, those who encouraged me to go and those who insisted they would never ever go to a reunion. The former tended to have an air of conviviality that would serve one well at a reunion. I am much closer in temperament to those in the latter group. 


I hold no sentimentality for high school or any of the schools I’ve attended. I’m not much good with the rah-rah stuff, hated pep rallies, don’t follow college sports and have no interest in graduation ceremonies. I skipped two of mine. I love learning, it’s the sentimentality and ceremonial parts that felt foreign to me. And then there is the question of ownership. There are those who owned high school. They were the stars of that show, attended the reunions and basked in the sentimentality of those years.  I understand the concept of owning one’s space better now as I do that in my spheres of interest. It is a good feeling, being recognized for what you do well, a feeling of belonging.  I am grateful to feel that in my life. Still, high school wasn’t my space, and to enter a place and time that didn’t really belong to me, I needed reinforcements. I started a message group with a couple of high school friends who I’d connected with on Facebook. They too were debating attending and shared similar sentiments. Slowly we converged on a decision to attend.

These were the thoughts that occupied me as my husband and I set forth on that long drive. Our route took us through the Driftless area, a region that covers portions of Wisconsin, Minnesota, Illinois and Iowa. This region wasn’t covered with ice during the Ice Age so lacks deposits of drift, hence driftless, but by no means unfocused. It has steep hills, bluffs, dense forests and deep river valleys. The Mississippi River cuts through the region creating amazing vistas and overlooks. Add to that fall colors and my usual napping in the car was held in abeyance as I absorbed the extraordinary beauty of our drive. It felt like a prelude that demanded something equally worthy.

In my purse were several colorful stones I was bringing to place on my parents’ gravestone. My parents’ presence still pervaded my sense of the city. I remembered when my father took us on what we jokingly termed the Phil Weinberg memorial tour. First to the studio of an artist to see a portrait he had just completed of my father, then to their burial plots. Some years later, we gathered in front of his portrait for a family photo after his funeral. Perhaps this was a memorial tour of my own, saying goodbye to a city I was unlikely to return to anytime soon, a city vested with a rich layer of memory. I suppose it is only fitting to have it begin with high school friends, some dating back to grade school.

We stopped for dinner at the Landmark Cafe in Galesburg, a nearby city.  I noted the stamped tin ceiling, brick walls, and a curious window, not sure if it was a decorative feature or an actual window. My husband stopped at the car to pick something up and on his return announced there was a courtyard that the window overlooked. I looked around me again with dawning awareness, picturing the room, its window and door from the opposite side. I logged into my pictures, pulling up a photo of my mother sitting in that courtyard eight years earlier smiling happily at me. It was the beginning of something I experienced throughout my visit, an odd sense of layered time. Past and present co-existing with an accompanying sense of dislocation.

Once in town everything seemed different, yet oddly familiar. My husband asked if I wanted to drive, quickly regretting that proposal as we both remembered the reason he usually drives. He is a horrible passenger. But I needed to drive to get my bearings in this strange mix of the familiar turned on its head. I drove by that old pink house in which I grew up, well more like a watered-down burgundy, now painted white. There was my mom’s old car in the driveway. We had sold it along with the house. I stealthily took a picture out the car window.  


We went to lunch in an area I remembered for interesting shops and restaurants only to learn the familiar places were gone.  Finally, we settled on Cayenne, a place painted with a Day of the Dead theme, grinning skulls on its walls. Once again, I had this déjà vu moment realizing that this was formerly a more sedate restaurant named Salt. We had gone there after my mother’s funeral. I reimagined our table of family amidst the skeletal grins.


Later we went to the cemetery. I said the Kaddish, the prayer for the dead, and placed my stones atop my parents’ pink marble tombstone, their new pink home. I had started a new ritual on my last visit. Three months before my father died, my parents had called my answering machine and sang Happy Birthday. I kept the recording and played it on each birthday since. My last visit to their graves was around my birthday so I had conjured them up with a rousing Happy Birthday song from cyberspace. Now as my birthday loomed, I again summoned their spirits, letting their voices waft through the graveyard.


That evening we joined old college friends for a Friday night art crawl and dinner. We had a satisfying visit, filled with deep conversations that I had missed. At the reunion the following evening, I enjoyed connecting with childhood friends. Many people were no longer recognizable as the teen in my memory. No one escapes aging. We were the fortunate ones as the list of those no longer with us grows. Since then, life had layered its own disruptions and challenges on everyone in that room, the great leveler. We all live layered lives, juxtaposing times both past and present.

We drove back through the Driftless area, stopping at a vista near which locals had set up a table selling homemade jams. My husband recalled our return from a visit to my parents many years ago. We had stopped there to enjoy the view and had of course purchased jams, likely from the same merchants who confirmed they had been selling there for almost twenty years.